Life, the Universe, and Everything
Glitchhickers is an interactive narrative experience created by Silverstring Media in which you’re put behind the wheel of a car on a sleepy nighttime drive and indulged in a variety of strange phenomena on your journey to an unknown destination. The game is available for free from Silverstring’s website and only takes about 20 minutes to finish so if you haven’t seen or played it yet and this sounds like something you’d be interested in, I’d recommend reading as little as possible about the game and just getting it for yourself right now. For those on the fence or seeking some dissection and analysis of Glitchhikers however, let’s take a closer look.
Glitchhikers uses a low-poly 3D environment, a shady mountainous landscape, a purple star-filled sky, and flat identical roads lit only by the headlights of your vehicle to create a solitary and dreamlike ambience. The world has a lazy, laid back feel to it yet also comes across as fantastical and strange, and this is the tone that courses through Glitchhikers as a whole. It’s something instilled into the very controls, which exist for largely non-technical purposes and are more intended to directly evoke the feel of the world around you. Even in something as hands-off as Dear Esther the controls were used to change your position in the world and get you from A to B, but here something as normally basic as player-controlled movement is purely optional. Your drive is on-rails and there are no obstacles to avoid or points you’re required to hit so speeding up, slowing down, moving from lane to lane, and looking left or right are done purely for your immediate amusement. This might seem like it would make you feel disconnected from the car and cause you to be less attentive about some aspects of the world around you, but that’s kind of the point. This game isn’t about the thrill of speeding down open roads, this is about drifting listlessly through the night on a slow and gentle journey.
Besides moving the car or turning your head, the only other button presses involved in play are to converse with the hitchhikers you pick up on your travels. Each of these hitchers is on their own journey of one kind or another, and in these moments where your paths intersect there are brief exchanges of ideas about their background, the universe, and your place in the grander scheme of things. Not every word out of their mouths is dripping with deeper truths, but among the musings of these characters on the fate of their home planets and the words of Carl Sagan there’s something of meaning and solace to be found, and while your contributions to conversations are frequently terse and the game doesn’t have any dialogue branches, your responses still carry relevance and say something. When a character mentions suicide do you tell them people have a right to die? Do you tell them suicide is dumb? Do you tell them you know someone who tried it? Do you tell them you’ve contemplated it? Each of these answers carries its own unique weight.
All in all the dialogue feels particularly pertinent because without spoiling too much it’s vaguely implied your journey in the game may not be a literal one, although it’s kind of up to your to fill in what your destination might be. Glitchhikers is not there to present absolute answers to any of the big questions, it’s there to raise those questions in the first place, and the ideas it communicates are as much about creating an atmosphere as they are about relaying concepts and details. While the bizarre nowhere of Glitchhikers feels completely unreal in some ways, in another way it feels like a simulator, not for some rote menial task or engineering job but for all those times you were sat in a car late at night listening to the rumbling of tires against asphalt, playing armchair philosopher with someone, looking for company from the radio. The game’s use of isolation is particularly interesting. Most games that force you to be alone or feature very few characters do so in an attempt to make you feel afraid or lonely or lost in a desolate wasteland, and while Glitchhikers does incorporate some these moods, it’s a game that allows you to also feel positive about the idea of being alone. It says that being alone can be affirming and comfortable and allows time to think, and that resonates with me.
Key to Glitchhikers’ execution is its sound. The strange host on your car’s radio is the most consistent character throughout the game beyond yourself, parcelling out knowledge and opinions on such topics as existentialism and Chinese history. Sometimes you can also find your radio scanning the airwaves for stray signals lost in the darkness, but a lot of the time that the host isn’t speaking your dashboard is emitting full feature songs. The music for the game was provided by artist Devin Vibert and is dark, grounded, and surreal. The songs feel like echoes from somewhere deep out in space: they’re mystical, reinforce topics talked about elsewhere in the game, and all have an emotional temperature somewhere from neutral to sombre. For better or for worse however I don’t think Glitchhikers can be talked about as an agent entirely unto itself because there’s another popular piece of media out there right now which it appears to pull no small amount of influence from.
Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast which I’ve heard fairly accurately described as “NPR from the Twilight Zone”. It’s a radio play where stories of the fictional desert town of Night Vale are told from the perspective of its spooky yet reliable radio host Cecil Palmer. The town of Night Vale is frequently rife with uncomfortable, paranormal, and inexplicable events, threats to human sanity, and general weirdness. Not only does Glitchhikers share these thematic parallels, but both feature a radio host with a penchant for speeches addressing you personally or dealing with the macabre and unusual, and both works have them using a very similar drawn-out, dramatic cadence. The two pieces of media also carry remarkably similar soundtracks, both featuring a lot of slightly disorientating indie tunes, often melancholy in nature and utilising ethereal instrumental sounds, and even the faceless peaks of Glitchhikers backed by the moon and the purple night sky bring to memory the WTNV album art.
I have a lot of love for Night Vale and for a video game to let me soak in something close to its backwards and head-twisting world is a real treat, but WTNV is produced with some great writing and voice talent, and for as good as Glitchhikers can be, it can’t quite match up to that, making the radio feel like a weaker stand-in for Night Vale at points. The game opting for text dialogue from the hitchers instead of being fully-voiced is also a double-edged sword. It adds to the oddness of the characters and lets you hear the radio throughout, but Glitchhikers is in no small part about breathing in the sights and sounds of a nighttime drive, you don’t want to have to tear your eyes away from the road to read those little purple boxes.
Glitchhikers can feel amateurish in the way it’s put together, but it’s a game I wish there was more of because taken in its totality it’s infectiously weird and introspective. It can deprive you of normal human contact, throw you into the uncertain, and give you the sense of being unhinged from reality, and yet at the same time provide a strange comfort and space to ruminate on your life in. In my book that makes Glitchhikers pretty special and one of the most memorable experimental titles we’ve seen in recent times.